Lustron: It’s so safe here, porcelain flowers live forever in a porcelain-reinforced saferoom

In Lustron: The House America Has Been Waiting For, Schiff employs a voice consistent with her subject matter (rather than, perhaps, her usual poetic voice or style) to hold the poem together and allow it to work on a new level.

This piece reads as an advertisement – and thus Schiff abandons her long-winding, enjambed sentences in favor for the “catchphrases” indicative of a salesman. “Room for all our sons. Time/ saver. Put away your hammer,” read like various slogan ideas at a meeting where all the salesmen gather to pitch slogans for their new product (in this case, the Lustron). The only time she noticeably abandons this technique of choppy, short sentences is in a long run from the bottom of page 42 to almost the middle of page 43 – a long moment which stands out as the rapid-fire disclaimer salesmen are so known for slipping in, especially the lines “unless you’ve already/spend so much backyard dynamite preparing your lot for your new house that you’re /wading in the curls of/ spent firecracker wrappers contemplating the boundless footfalls you// spent mounting the backstairs of Victorian/ life while the future parked around the corner was ready to pull up to your curb and/ deliver the dreams you earned on the battlefield where you/ spent your body.” And yet, the voice has never changed (it is still the voice of a salesman, and he has to throw in his safety net somewhere).

What’s more is that the pitch is revealed little by little as something of a scam, as salesmen are also apt to do (so they can throw in a little “I told ya so” when the customers start complaining). On security, the speakers says both:

…Imagine a whole

life that feels like the satisfaction of passing through security with undetectable

weaponry in your carry-on.

And:

…Imagine a house so poised you can live in its

teacups. Four rooms and a creamer. They survive revolutions.

There is something off about the idea of safety here, but a consistent voice allows the idea to be complicated. I know my own ideas about safety generally include checking for handguns in airports, but maybe another kind of safety is the ability to arm the self (as is our right). And yet another person’s idea of safety is a home so monitored and secure that one could sleep in its china and (assumably) nothing would go horribly awry. Both aspects of safety come to terms with power – the power of carrying weaponry, the power to control the incontrollable (who can prevent a teacup from breaking if it wants?) – and with a common voice are linked within the idea behind this particular poem and also making those individual details (weaponry and teacups) more than arbitrarily chosen objects.

Then the speaker complicates this particular idea of weaponry on a plane further by recalling it:

…You can’t change your

life so why not enjoy it safe in the knowledge you already live in the porcelain-

enameled mythical Glock everyone’s always talking about smuggling into the

cockpit.

And near the end of the poem:

Throw things into the river, but

save the Glock; you can take it with you.

The salesman is moving beyond Lustron and convincing you of its safety – now he’s trying to convince you of any notion of safety at all (which, again, complicates this poem from a very calculated “pitch” to the “outburst” of fear created by human association). “You can’t change your life” and “Throw things into the river” are both indicative of desperation, melodrama, fear, an out-of-control being…these are not things we think of when we imagine this clever, smiling salesman at the beginning who starts us off with the brotherly idea of a home with “room for all our sons.” But this, again, makes the poem more interesting. The salesman-speaker is still here (see how quickly he recovers – “so why not enjoy it”), but has evolved into a human being as well…and this is not only appealing to us as readers, but is a brilliant advertising tactic (that’s why we see puppies and babies in commercials so much).

Generally, I struggle with approaching Schiff’s work in an intelligible way – but what I do recognize is a complexity operating under a lot of regiment (as in Marianne Moore) as well as association (as in the huia). But I think her poems ask us to go even slower than we may be used to when reading – and in reading and rereading, circling common themes, tracing the association of words, and doing some research (what is a huia or a Glock?), we are allowed in the space of her psyche, where apparently everything’s complicated on the inside.

2 Responses to “Lustron: It’s so safe here, porcelain flowers live forever in a porcelain-reinforced saferoom”

  1. stephroush Says:

    I enjoy your reflection that through our deliberation and work on the common threads “we are allowed in the space of her psyche.” Additionally, you reading helps illuminate this poem. I do see the title of “Lustron: The House America Has Been Waiting For” as ad-like and a lot of the language taking on the tone of “a pitch.” This dark undercurrent comes out of that tone/speaker. The Lustron represents “modern 1950s” and Schiff’s playing with safety fits into that. You noticed how she introduces the home as safety and safety as arming yourself or safety as free of arms. The Lustron was introduced in response to post-World War II culture and housing shortages for returning soldiers. A lot of this marketing centers on an ideal to recapture and America clean and powerful and better than before, as well as reestablish safety after so much loss of life, hope, etc. The descriptions Schiff uses of ” a porcelain-reinforced four-room house with a doily under every vase like the clean white shadow grace would cast were it not the source of light itself. It’s so safe here, porcelain flowers / live forever in a porcelain-reinforced / saferoom” really cuts at that marking of safety. For me, Schiff is playing with artificiality in the repetition of porcelain and living forever and its seems the ad-like/marketing tone becomes a memorialization or maybe the illumination that the America presented is simply marketing, propaganda, and/or an ideal that shadows the American reality. I don’t know, maybe not that exactly, but the “motherless” language etc. seems to bring up that loss in my reading and I think supports the way you illuminate the poem.

  2. erinl09 Says:

    Stephanie, you totally stole my thunder.

    I agree, that Schiff is making statements about the kitschy-catchphraseness of Americana, the constant selling-you-the-American-Dream. I feel like Americana is a big theme with her, especially because the revolver is a firearm associated with the archetypical American cowboy. It’s funny that one of the questions I was asked while studying in Denmark was, does everyone own a gun? Therefore the entire collection seems to engage the meanings of being American. The World War II era, which Steph mentioned earlier, was one of the super-patriotic eras in our history.

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